WOODSTOCK WEEKEND FOR THE CLUELESS
by Ben Fine
In 1969, three hundred thousand people went to Woodstock. However by 2019 seven million people remember being at Woodstock. The memories of baby boomers have transformed the sixties into this magical, mythical landscape where everyone was a hippie, everyone was a draft resister, everyone was a veteran, and everyone was at the forefront of sex, drugs and protest.
In truth, most of us were entirely clueless during the sixties. We ambled through the decade much as we ambled through the fifties before and the seventies after, not realizing much of anything. We confronted big historic moments and didn’t realize that they were big and historic. We concentrated as always on the trivialities of getting through each day.
Any American around my age can tell you exactly where they were when they heard that JFK was shot. For my parent’s generation the same was true about when they heard about Pearl Harbor. For my children it was the attack on the World trade Center. Also most Americans my age woke up in the middle of a summer night in 1969 to see Neil Armstrong walk on the moon. Aside from the JFK assassination and the moon walk, four things had to touch anyone, no matter how clueless, who came of age during that period: the Vietnam war, drugs, protest and of course the music.
Music defined the sixties. The music was so pervasive that it is hard to even think of the sixties without a Beatles-Stones-Doors soundtrack. “Light My Fire” was the generation’s marching tune and “Satisfaction” its national anthem. In the early sixties, rock and roll was high school music. When you graduated you moved on to some mature boring crap. The Beatles changed that. Now rock and roll was for our lifetimes. Simple three chord progressions gave way to better musicianship that still managed to make your heart beat faster and make your feet move. Music changed from something to dance to, or make out to, into something to experience. Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction” spoke to all our concerns clueless or not and the Temptations “Ball of Confusion” echoed our own confusion as the world swirled around us.
In 1968 , in no particular order my concerns were going to work, going to school, my family, playing ball, chasing women and rooting for the Yankees and the football Giants. In 2019 what are my concerns? Going to work, going to school, my family - now from a different perspective - playing ball - baseball and football have given way to tennis and golf, chasing women - now reduced to one, and rooting for the Yankees and the Giants. Being a Yankee fan in recent years has been mostly paradise, however the Giants, except for brief shining moments, are still painful.
In 1968 I had mastered the fine art of “hanging out”. This consisted of sitting somewhere, - a park, a bar, someone’s front steps – and wasting countless hours talking about essentially nothing. This is known commonly as BS-ing.
By 2018 I have evolved into a full professor at a good university. Aside from a few troublesome hours where I actually have to lecture, I sit somewhere – my office, a faculty lounge, a park, a bar, someone’s front steps – and waste countless hours talking about essentially nothing. In academic parlance this is called BS-ing . Of course some of my colleagues prefer to call this either office hours or necessary discussion of research.
As we clueless people marched through the decade, the music leading us onward, Woodstock became the apex of the music experience. For most of us Woodstock meant nothing. It was only after we were told that this was a momentous occasion that we turned to it. However I know exactly where I was on Woodstock weekend; trapped in a VW beetle returning from a football game in New Haven.
On that Sunday morning, in late August of 1969, I was in my friend Les’s VW with two other friends, Dennis and his younger brother Irwy, on the way to the Yale Bowl in New Haven to see the first ever Giants-Jets game. Dennis was a Jets fan and a pain in the ass to the rest of us, loyal Giants fans all, who were making the trip to watch the Giants regain the honor of the NFL and beat up on the Jets. We argued and argued football but in the background, ever present was the radio and the music.
“Namath got lucky – you’ll see the Jints defense take him apart – hey turn that up I love that song”, I said.
“You’re crazy the Jets are so much better. Yeah that song is sweet – you hear the Stones new album?”
As we continued to New Haven we had a beer or two and the conservation wavered between football and music. Dennis continued to goad me about the NFL.
“Hey did you bet on this game? It’s stupid to bet on these exhibition games.”
“Nah, I laid off. They had a line on it though – Jets by 10. Hey Les turns this up, it’s a new Frankie Valli cut. Hey
Dennis, notice how despite everything, the Four Seasons just keep rolling along?” I told him.
Dennis, a graduate student in history, began to philosophize and analyze, a habit of his. “They represent the Anti-Beatles. They’re the throwback, the bastions of blue collar music. Working class heroes; think of “Big Man in Town” versus “Sgt Pepper.”
“Cut the bullshit, you sound like Professor Peabody on Rocky and Bullwinkle.”
He was right. Much more happened with the music; music defined the popular culture – the style leaders came from the music world, neither from the movies nor from the establishment. The Beatles got into eastern religion and mind altering drugs and the popular culture followed: clothes, hair, and cars. Even us clueless geeks followed along. I have no idea of style but I knew enough to dress a little like everyone else and to grow my hair longer.
In that VW we didn’t realize that the zenith of the sixties music culture was occurring a hundred miles away in Woodstock. Sometimes I get angry because so many people remember being there. I want to shake some of them and say loudly, “Listen you were seven years old in 1969 and were living in Marlinville, Kansas. You were not, definitely not, at Woodstock!” I don’t do this though. I don’t want to destroy someone’s pleasant memories, even if they’re false.
On that Sunday morning while people rolled in the mud, got high and made love at Woodstock while Country Joe and the Fish sang “Next Stop Vietnam” twelve of us, mostly Giant fans, drove in three cars from New York City to New Haven to watch the Giants regain the honor of the NFL. Broadway Joe Namath and his upstart Jets shocked the football world by upsetting the mighty Colts in Super Bowl III.
We arrived at the Yale Bowl and as per plan, we hooked up with our eight other friends, who had a bigger car and carried the coolers. We then had the requisite tailgating. Beer flowed freely in the parking lot. Inside the Yale Bowl, more beer, an absolute necessity because of the heat. The Jets proceeded to kick the Giants butts. Joe Namath was impeccable, hardly missing a pass; when the dust cleared the count was Jets 38 Giants 14 and we had to make the sad journey back to New York. Luckily our pain was anaesthetized by the massive amounts of alcohol we consumed. Four of us piled back into Les’s VW Beatle. We returned to Route 95 which was a parking lot, no doubt overfilled by the sixty thousand fans leaving the Yale Bowl. We sat for an hour and I memorized the license plate in front of us, CT XFT1406.
In my impatience I said to Les, somewhat less inebriated than the rest of us “Get off here and go to the next exit, maybe it eases up there.”
“I don’t know New Haven, how will we find the next exit?” he answered
“Just keep the highway to our left – we’ll find it.”
We exited the highway and wandered around New Haven for the next forty-five minutes. We finally found a sign saying 95 South and turned onto the entrance ramp. It wasn’t until we were back on the highway and again sitting in nonmoving traffic that we realized we had entered at the same entrance that we had exited. Les weaved a bit through the traffic and then we sat again. Unfortunately the license plate of the car in front of us was CT XFT1406. Forty-five minutes of wandering and we were at the same spot. Irwy, who was wavering in semi-consciousness, suggested, I guess fueled by the alcohol.
“Hey guys” he slurred, “the sun sets in the west and we’re heading west? We should get off the highway and follow the sun. Eventually we’ll get home.”
“Follow the sun,” Les began in his somewhat less inebriated state. “That’s a really wonderful idea.” He then exited at the same exit we had taken an hour earlier and started to drive through New Haven following the sun. After passing many of the same homes we wound up on Route 34, moving at a reasonable clip. It was a beautiful ride, the sun in front of us and then the rustic Housatonic River wandering to the side of us. We were driving unimpeded, but unfortunately Route 34 goes northwest rather than west and suddenly there was a sign “City Limits: Danbury, Connecticut”. Danbury is farther from New York than New Haven. “No problem,” I told Les, “I know how to get home from here. Just get on I-84 and head west and we’ll take the Taconic Parkway.”
Les did as he was told and we arrived at the Taconic. Entering the Taconic, the traffic came to a complete standstill. It was impossible to even exit the Parkway. Irwy woke up momentarily and in a semi stupor asked
“Hey what’s going on?”
"We’re standing still in frigging traffic on the Taconic.” I told him.
“Hey this must be the traffic.”
“I heard this morning that there’s some big rock concert upstate. Woodshole or something . They said there was going to be massive traffic delays.”
So we sat there, first listening to Dennis’ gloating about the Jets and then listening to the radio and arguing about music. Was “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” really about LSD? Who was better the Temptations or the Four Tops? Eventually we slipped into exhaustion and silence and finally reached home after midnight, the usual one-hour ride from New Haven, taking seven hours.
So Woodstock, the high point of the sixties music culture, passed into history and people’s memories, whether they were there or not. As for those of us in that VW we went back to our lives and then moved cluelessly into the seventies.
Bio: Dr. Ben Fine is a mathematician and professor at Fairfield University in Connecticut in the United States. He is a graduate of the MFA program at Fairfield University and is the author of fifteen books (twelve in mathematics, one on chess, one a political thriller and one a swahbuckler about pirates) as well over 130 research articles, fifteen short stories and a novella about Pirates. His story August 18,1969 published in the Green Silk Journal was nominated for a Pushcart prize. His story From the Dambovitsa to Coney Island was an honorable mention winner in the Glimmer Train Literary Contest. His story “The Schuyler Diamonds” won First Place in the Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Awards in the Mystery/Crime Category. His story “My Mother, God and the Big Blue Ford”, published in Green Silk Journal won Honorable Mention in the 45th New Millennium Writing Awards. He has completed a memoir told in interwoven stories called Tales from Brighton Beach: A Boy Grows in Brooklyn. The stories detail his growing up in Brighton Beach, a seaside neighborhood on the southern tip of Brooklyn, during the 1950’s and 1960’s. Brighton Beach was unique and set apart from the rest of New York City both in character and in time. His latest novel Out of Granada was released in 2017. His author website is https://benfineauthor.com
by Otis Fuqua
Petunia notices things. She records her observations with a tape recorder. Her son Merle makes fun of her for it. Grandma, he calls her. Just use your phone, he says. Petunia fills a cassette a day. She sends them to the Library of Congress. It’s proof Burgeon exists. She makes a copy of each tape, and keeps them locked in a file cabinet in her office.
Her office is above the post office. On the door it says “Burgeon Historic Society”. It is a society of one. There used to be two. Petunia founded it with her friend Samantha when they were in high school, but Samantha moved to New York. The last time they spoke, Samantha said she was sharing an apartment with five artists.
“I feel like a scoop of ice cream on a slice of hot apple pie,” she’d said.
They haven’t spoken since.
Today, Petunia is observing the west side of town. Tomorrow she will observe the east. She looks for things out of the ordinary. A new rake on the Park’s porch. Motorcycle tracks in the middle of second street.
There’s an out-of-town van parked on Prospector Road. It’s been there for three days. It’s rusty. The windows are tinted. Its tires are half-buried in mud.
Prospector Road is a problem. When it rains it floods. Cars get stuck there. Farmers lose cows to it. Petunia writes the county a letter once a week asking them to fix it. Every few months they write back, telling her it’s too expensive. They say they’d have to shut down part of a school.
Petunia walks to the van. Her boots sink up to her ankles. The mud on Prospector makes sucking noises as she walks. Ouch, she imagines it’s saying.
Petunia records the truck’s license plate. She opens the glove compartment. It contains a lighter, a bottle of sunscreen, and a map of northern Mexico. She sits in the passenger seat and unfolds the map. There are little holes where the folds intersect. The city names roll off her tongue.
“Suacio. Monclova. Durango,” she says.
A blanket in the backseat shifts. A man’s head emerges. Scraggly hair covers his eyes.
“Can I help you?” the man says.
Petunia throws the map over the man’s face. She gets out of the car and closes the door and runs a few feet away. Merle comes to mind. She pictures him at school. He’s kicking a ball. He’s eating pizza. This calms her.
“Startled by vagrant in van on Prospector Road,” she says into her tape recorder. She knocks on the window. The man rolls it down. He’s pinned his hair behind his head. His eyes look like a shark’s. They are dead and gray. “You can’t camp here,” Petunia says.
“I’ll leave then,” the man says. His eyes pass over her. Even his eyebrows are emotionless. Petunia wonders if he might be blind.
The van pitches from side to side as it moves. The tires on one side are caked in mud. When it turns onto the highway, the mud breaks off, and it drives smoothly away. Petunia waits until it is out of sight before recording the encounter.
Petunia eats lunch in her office today. She’s purchased a chicken salad sandwich from the general store across the street. She hasn’t touched it. A fly is eating it.
She’s waiting to eat until she finishes working. She’s making a sketch. It’s for her records. It’s supposed to be of the man in the van, but she’s forgotten most of his face. Only the eyes are accurate. They’re the most bored eyes she’s ever seen. Petunia feels them following her as she shifts above the page. When the drawing is done, Petunia wraps it in plastic. She places it in the bottom drawer of the file cabinet with the others.
The fly rubs its front legs together.
“Shoo fly,” Petunia says.
She watches the highway as she eats. It’s a nice stretch of road between two hills. There are more semi-trucks than usual. Petunia makes a note of it. She takes her sandwich to the window.
There are two out-of-towners in front of the general store. Young men. One is taking a picture of the other. He’s posing with a tumbleweed. They’re laughing. Petunia forgets to chew her sandwich and swallows a big hunk of bread. It scrapes her esophagus going down.
She snaps a photo of the men from the window. Her camera flashes. The men look at her. Their lips make the shapes of curse words. One flips her off. His middle finger is tipped with black nail polish. Petunia takes another photo and her camera flashes again. The man with nail polish starts toward the stairs that lead to her office, but the other man stops him. He explains something with a lot of hand gestures. If this, then that, he seems to be saying. He waves his hand in Petunia’s direction like he’s brushing her away. She snaps a third photo, with a third camera flash. The man with nail polish points his camera at her. His finger clicks a button on top. There is no flash. The other man kicks the tumbleweed down the road. They get into a station wagon and drive away.
Petunia speaks into her tape recorder. “Have just taken three photos of two potential criminals on Main. Men with nail polish. Illegally parked. Profanity. Narrowly avoided a violent confrontation with one, thanks to intervention of the other. Left town in a hurry, likely fleeing law enforcement. I failed to record their license plate, but plan on giving the county police a detailed statement.”
She takes a hammer and two black sewing pins out of a desk drawer. She turns to her map of the world.
The map is framed in dark wood. There’s a pin for each location a visitor to Burgeon has come from. Burgeon is marked with a big yellow knitting needle. Petunia rubs the hammer under her chin, wondering where to stick the pins. The young men are probably New Yorkers, she thinks, most criminals are.. New York is covered in pins. Something about the nail polish strikes Petunia as Cuban. She decides to put the pins in Havana. They’ll be the first from Cuba. The man in the van came from Los Angeles. She’s sure of this. Los Angeles doesn’t merit a pin on the map.
Petunia hits her thumb with the hammer. She’s distracted. She’s thinking of the man in the van’s eyes. It feels like they’re watching her from inside the file cabinet. She opens the drawer and looks at the drawing. It’s mocking her. It’s saying, how boring your life must be, to get lost in these boring eyes.
“You’re nothing special,” she says to it.
A red circle appears on her thumb. She sets the pins on her desk, with a sticky note that says ‘Cuba’, and goes home early.
The fly eats more of her sandwich.
Petunia’s afternoon is a wash. Everything is boring once she goes home. She tries journaling, reading, vacuuming, weeding the garden, and picking tomatoes. She only lasts a minute at each. After a minute, the thought that there’s something better to do makes continuing impossible. She almost bakes cookies. But halfway through, the thought of scooping out so many balls of dough and waiting for them to bake becomes excruciating. She puts the batter in the freezer. In the end, Petunia spends the afternoon on the couch with the TV on. A fantasy series is playing. She stares out the window until it’s time to pick Merle up from school.
Merle’s day is better. “Everything’s coming up Merle,” he says on the car ride home. He says his math teacher played a movie instead of lecturing. The cafeteria served breaded cheese sticks. He hit an in-the-park homerun during baseball practice.
Petunia watches him in the rear-view mirror. His hair looks golden in the sun. There’s a smudge of dirt in the center of each cheek. He smiles at her, so big his eyes close for a second.
“How about a drive?” Petunia asks. “We could get ice cream.”
Merle says he wants to go home. Petunia lets him eat some of the cookie dough after dinner. She tells him he can stay up late if he wants, but he goes to bed at seven. Sometimes she wonders if she didn’t give birth to an old man.
Petunia sits on the wrought iron bench in her backyard. It’s overgrown with vines. Merle’s snores fill the air. How such a big noise comes from such a little kid is beyond her. She likes to tell Merle it’s proof that he’s a miracle. She’s drinking whisky mixed with sweet tea. There are no clouds. The Milky Way’s in full sight. There’s a slight breeze. She shuts her eyes and pretends Merle’s snoring is the sound of the sky breathing. The grass tickles the backs of her legs beneath the bench.
A gust of wind rushes through the cornfield beyond Petunia’s yard. The stalks rustle together. She tries to imagine it’s a ghost, but can’t convince herself it’s anything more than wind. The ice cube in her drink spins in a circle.
Part of Petunia wants to walk through the cornfield. It wants to feel the leaves dragging across her skin. It wants to feel the ears batting against her body. It wants to walk to the middle of the field, to look around and see only corn plants and the night sky. It wants to drive to her office, and put the drawing of the man in the van through the shredder. Records be damned.
Another part of Petunia wants to go inside. It thinks of Samantha, melting on a piece of pie. It wants to finish baking cookies tonight, so tomorrow Merle can take some to school.
Petunia finishes her whisky and tea. She chews the ice cube and looks at the stars. She sees a million different shapes between them. It occurs to her that constellations are arbitrary shapes. She wonders who’s in charge of drawing them.
Inside, Merle shifts, and his snores change in pitch. Petunia pictures him in his bed, with his funny smile, wrapped in his race car sheets. He’ll be too old for them soon. He’s already asked her to let him pick out his own clothes.
“Another drink,” Petunia says. She goes inside. She puts an ice cube in her empty glass, and goes to sleep. By morning, it has melted.
Bio: Otis is a Boulder, Colorado native with his head in the clouds. When he's not hiking in the mountains or playing sappy songs on his guitar, he's hunched over a story, trying to get the words right. He's fascinated by the way people think about themselves, and hopes his stories kindle similar fascinations in his readers.